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An Unkind Fate : For an Author, Giving Autographed Books to Friends Can Be Hazardous to the Ego

March 16, 1986|JACK SMITH

No one who has never published a book knows the acute melancholy an author feels when he finds in a used-book store a copy that he has autographed to a friend.

This has happened to me three or four times. In each case the book had been autographed to someone I knew and regarded as a friend, and for whom I had written some personal sentiment, such as "Dear Fred: With fond memories of our good times together," or "Dear Elsie: You are always in my thoughts."

The first time this happened I confronted the person who had owned the book, at least briefly, and she insisted she had never had an autographed copy. What else could she say?

Besides, I understand. I have dozens of books in my library that I would discard as unreadable if they didn't happen to be autographed to me personally. I can't bear to think of the pain it would cause their authors to find them at some garage sale or in a used-book store. So I keep them, knowing that they will be found in my estate someday, and that their authors will be pleased to think I treasured them to the end.

But I was shaken the other day by a letter from Deanna Unternahrer of Agoura Hills, who had been rearranging her bookshelves and found a forgotten book:

"When I was in the library one day (approximately five years ago) and saw a copy of your book, 'The Big Orange,' I naturally checked it out. I read the book and enjoyed it, and as I was about to return it to the library, I noticed an inscription on the flyleaf, partially obscured by the library card pocket. It read:

" 'For Herb Caen: Hoping this will help you find the place. Jack Smith.'

Ms. Unternahrer asks:

"Did you inscribe a book for Herb Caen as described above?

"Did Mr. Caen ever receive the book?

"If so, how did it end up on the shelf in the L.A. County Library system instead of Mr. Caen's shelf in San Francisco?

"I hope this doesn't hurt your feelings or come between you and Mr. Caen."

(By the way, Ms. Unternahrer found another copy of the book, returned it to the library and kept Herb Caen's.)

There is no doubt that I autographed the book as described and sent it to Herb Caen, the celebrated columnist, at his office in the San Francisco Chronicle. I even remember writing that particular inscription. Caen had complained in his column that he had come down to Los Angeles but couldn't find it. "The Big Orange," published in 1976, was a collection of articles I had written about Southern California, and I thought it might help Caen get a handle on the place.

I decided to phone Caen and ask him if he remembered what had happened to the book.

He was in his office, hard at work on his daily eulogy of Baghdad by the Bay.

"Herb," I told him, "a reader writes me that she checked one of my books out of the library and found out that I had autographed it to you. Do you have any idea how that happened?"

He sounded incredulous. "I don't understand it," he said.

"You must have given it away," I said. "It was a book about Southern California. I thought it might help you discover the place."

There was a long pause. Finally, he said: "It must have been one of my ex-wives."

"But how could it have turned up in the Los Angeles County Public Library?" I asked.

He was stumped.

Anyway, it's too bad. Reading that book might have opened Caen's eyes to the pleasures of life in Southern California.

Back in 1962, Caen and I wrote side-by-side pieces for the Saturday Evening Post; his was about Los Angeles, mine about San Francisco.

His began: "To the average San Franciscan, an Angeleno is the kind of guy who would wear a sport shirt to the opera, has a wife who sports a mink stole with her slacks, and probably belongs to some kind of screwball cult."

Many times in the intervening years, Caen has shown a mellowing toward Los Angeles, but underneath the nice guy lies the same old Caen.

Last May, he and I again wrote side-by-side articles, this time for Family Weekly. Caen said that the old rivalry, which he admitted having fueled, was over, but he ended with this:

"Driving along a San Francisco street a few days ago, I found myself behind a Pontiac whose license plates read 'NUKE LA.' A bit extreme, perhaps, and decidedly old-fashioned, but it's the thought that counts, and I found it not altogether unpleasant."

Maybe I'll check another copy of that book out of the library and send it to Herb Caen again.

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